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Community agencies rally around Children’s Clinic

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It may take a village to raise a child, but it’s going to take the entire community to raise the North Country Children’s Clinic back up.

The clinic, at 238 Arsenal St., announced Tuesday that it will shut its doors Friday, leaving thousands of children and adults without medical, dental and mental health care. Clinic officials and leaders from local agencies, however, are hopeful they can work together to resurrect the 42-year-old agency.

“We’re looking at short-term and long-term opportunities,” said Daniel A. Wasneechak, clinic executive director. “It’s ‘What can we do to partner together?’ We’re trying to partner with community organizations.”

Mr. Wasneechak was busy Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with various local agencies to see what partnerships could form, if any, to keep some services alive beyond Friday. A couple of those meetings both days were with Samaritan Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Thomas H. Carman, but Mr. Wasneechak would not elaborate on what was discussed.

Mr. Wasneechak also met with North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council board members and staff Wednesday, to discuss the possibility of the council temporarily overseeing the federal Women, Infants and Children supplemental feeding program, according to council board of directors President Stephen A. Jennings. Mr. Jennings said Thursday he hoped to have an emergency board meeting today to discuss just that.

The state Department of Health issued a statement Wednesday saying it was working withthe Children’s Clinic, Samaritan Medical Center and other parties “to ensure there is no disruption of services” to the clinic’s patients. “DOH will continue these efforts in order to develop a sustainable solution that meets the needs of the community,” the department announced, although no details were provided.

Family Counseling Service of Northern New York Executive Director Collene D. Alexander, who was director of the Children’s Clinic from July to October 2012, called the situation “heartbreaking.”

“Family Counseling Service will do what it can to serve those behavioral health clients,” she said. “The community really needs to come together to find a solution. I totally think there’s a solution; it’s all about collaboration.”

While the recent federal government shutdown was not the reason the clinic is closing, Mrs. Alexander said, that was just a small piece of the puzzle.

“When you have other issues, and you’re dependent on the federal government, of course there will be an impact,” she said. “Here is another example of when the federal government is ineffective. Are they seeing the faces of these babies and moms? (Clinic officials) have no control over what Congress does or doesn’t do.”

The federal shutdown may have been the last straw, she said. As of Sept. 30, just one day before the shutdown, Mr. Wasneechak, however, said he did not anticipate the shutdown would have an impact on clinic operations.

“It’s just the perfect storm,” he said. “With funding slowing down with Medicaid reimbursement of claims, everything just hit on the same day.”

The clinic’s debt stands at about $1.5 million. The agency could not afford to pay vendors or employees beyond Friday.

Children’s Clinic Corporate Compliance Director Jennifer C. Hodge said the clinic was working on a closure plan through the state Department of Health. The department requires agencies that wish to close to draft a closure plan that gives patients and staff a 90-day heads-up. The clinic did not have 90 days, she said.

“The state Department of Labor said if you cannot pay your employees, you can’t ask them to come to work,” Mrs. Hodge said.

That is why the clinic is closing Friday.

Mr. Wasneechak, who just started at the top post in mid-August, said he remains committed to the organization, and has faith that the clinic will thrive again. He said a group of 10 to 12 staff members will work on a volunteer basis after Friday to try to come up with a solution.

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